Beyoncé had left the stadium in triumph. Her sultry renditions of “Crazy in Love” and other hits had culminated in the surprise onstage reunion of Destiny’s Child. But just a few minutes later, during the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans in 2013, half the lights went out in the Superdome. For 34 minutes, the stadium plunged into semidarkness, complete mayhem headed off only by backup systems that kicked in to keep the stadium and 71,000 spectators in half light.
A disaster, of sorts—or at least it could have been. While the world watched a half-dark stadium, those of us who plan for worst-case scenarios saw the glory of a stadium in half light. Imagine the alternative, we thought. What had staved off a worse outcome? A fail-safe system—a set of mechanisms that activates when something goes wrong—had felt the stresses caused by some electric disruption that was turning the lights off in the Superdome. The fail-safe system had prevented a cascade of other losses.
Today, as a global pandemic sweeps across 50 states, and COVID-19 case counts spiral upward, America’s fail-safe mechanisms are being strained like never before. The United States has crashed, and the arrival of a novel coronavirus is only one of the causes. The other is that command of the American effort against the pathogen fell to a president unprepared for the challenge and overwhelmed by the demands of his office. The situation is legitimately grounds for despair; we are in the half dark. But some lights are still on, thanks to the sheer grit of those—the governors and mayors, the public- and private-sector experts and operations managers, the corporate CEOs and nonprofit officials—now serving as a counterweight to a president unmoved by what is happening to the United States.